John Brookes

John Brookes, MBE (1933 – 2018), was an award winning landscape designer, writer and lecturer who introduced Modernism to British garden design.

Design Plan for Toddington House Forecourt (1984-08-04) by John BrookesGarden Museum

This story explores Brookes though his archive of drawings, ge­nerously deposited at the Garden Museum, beginning in 1956 and spanning over 50 years of his continuing career in garden design. These drawings, sometimes the only records for gardens that have since changed or disappeared, show his design approach and vision.

Design Plan for Park Village East Garden (1945/1975) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Brookes’ early sketches, in particular,
underline his belief that the garden should be an extension of the home reflecting
the demands of modern life. The middle class could not afford the high
maintenance gardens of the Edwardian Age and earlier tradition, nor did they
have the room for them but they could have beautifully designed gardens with
stylish furniture and useful features such as play spaces and barbeques. 

He used new shapes, simpler structures, and inspiration from architecture and modern artists such as Ben Nicholson, Piet Mondrian, and Henri Matisse. Through collaborations with architects he introduced structure and geometry; from the iconic courtyard of Penguin Books inspired by the paintings of Piet Mondrian to the ‘sexy curves’ of spaces inspired by his Brazilian hero, Burle-Marx.

Design Plan for Terrace Garden (1964-12-27) by John BrookesGarden Museum

As a student in 1950s Britain, he recalls, a garden was a place to show off an immaculate lawn, prize chrysanthemums and grow vegetables. One or two deckchairs aside, it was not a place used for outdoor living. It was reading Thomas Church’s 'Gardens are for People' which opened Brookes’ eyes to gardens as a place for a modern lifestyle with patios, pools and barbecues and not just the sweat of horticulture.

Brookes was an early pioneer in the Modernist approach to gardens. This was typified by his belief as written in his 2018 book ‘A Landscape Legacy ‘ that ‘One needed to consider the purpose of the garden first and only then think about its design, so that lifestyle, architecture and garden were a harmonious whole. It seems obvious now, but in 1960s Britain, this was almost heresy’

In 1962 Brookes was the first independent designer to create an exhibition at the Chelsea Flower Show. His garden presented an outdoor living space rather than showcasing plants, which was a new concept at the time. Although controversial, he won the Flora sliver medal. He went on to create seven more gardens at Chelsea, winning four gold medals and two slivers.

Garden Design Plan for St Leonards Nusery (1945/1975) by John BrookesGarden Museum

He wrote over 25 books in his lifetime. His most influential was the 'Room Outside', first published in 1969 then revised and re-published in 2007, in which he argues for the idea that gardens should be an extension of the home. As with the interior of the house, the garden should be a place for people to use, not just look out at.

Design drawings by John Brookes (1945/1975) by John BrookesGarden Museum

“We had been fed a diet of gracious living and country houses,” he recalls, with ordinary gardeners in the shadow of the grand names of gardening. Why couldn’t everyone have their garden designed? In 1967 while working as a landscape consultant for ‘House Beautiful’, Brookes designed small gardens for £1, “whether you’ve just acquired a desert or a jungle, landscape designer John Brookes will provide an easy to follow scheme.”

Brookes was passionate about gardens of all sizes. He had begun his professional career working with Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe on primarily large parks and some small gardens. However, after four years with the practice, he left to set up his own practice which focused primarily on private gardens. He ‘wanted to show that design is the starting point, particularly in small gardens, as they need a lot of thought.’

Design and Planting Plan for Lightwells (1988-07-21) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Throughout his career Brookes designed more than 1000 gardens around the world. He designed public and private gardens in North America, South America, Japan, South Africa, and Europe in addition to gardens in the United Kingdom. His gardens in the United Kingdom ranged from Penguin Books head quarters and St Peters College in Oxford to country estates and London terraces. He worked with gardens of any size, even taking this unusual request for plant containers and planting in light wells owned by London Transport.

John Brookes at Denmans (c.2015) by The Garden MuseumGarden Museum

Throughout his life Brookes taught and lectured on six out of the seven continents including at his own garden Denmans in Sussex. Here he speaks about the garden at Denmans, which is still open to the public, and his design principles.

Design Details of Landscaping for Bryanston Square by John Brookes (1966) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Bryanston Square

Bryanston Square is a classic early 19th century London square north of Oxford Street, and in 1964 Brookes came to live in a mews house in this neighbourhood. Brookes was commissioned for the private park in 1965 to give residents something ‘interesting to look at’ from their first-floor drawing rooms.

Layout Design by John Brookes, Bryanston Square, London (1965/1966) by John BrookesGarden Museum

His design was influenced by one of his heros, the Brazilian artist and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, who introduced swirling geometric forms to gardens.

Proposed Landscaping Design Scheme by John Brookes fo Bryanston Square. (1966) by John BrookesGarden Museum

It also reflects the absence of sunlight in the square, with flowers only flourishing at the margins. Brookes noticed how the square was popular with nannies pushing prams, and wanted to create a meandering walk.

Design Details of Landscaping for Bryanston Square by John Brookes (1966) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Brookes said ‘The object of the planting was not to produce a flower garden but a green one with points of colour emphasis. The dappled light coming through the leaves of the original London plane trees produces very pleasing light and shade effects’. He formed mounds using pulverised fuel ash, an innovative material.

Landscape Drawing Showing Vistas fo Bryanston Square, London (1966) by John BrookesGarden Museum

The design was accepted by the garden committee and executed at a cost of £3,699. It was one of Brooke’s first major projects however it is no longer in place. Brookes recalled ‘I moved out of London and the next thing I heard was that they didn’t like the wiggly paths and they’d straightened them up again!’ The design can be seen as one of the boldest Modernist interventions in a traditional city space.

Planting Plan for Chicago Botanic Garden (1988-09-05) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Chicago Botanic Garden

In the 1980s Brookes lectured across the world and taught at the newly-founded Botanic Garden in Chicago. He was commissioned in 1986 to add an English garden but, to his frustration, found that ‘it was the National Trust look that they craved’. It was in this decade that the period ‘country house’ styles associated with designers such as Penelope Hobhouse and Rosemary Verey were in vogue in the USA.

Design Plan for the Chicago Botanic Garden (1988-07-17) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Not wishing to produce a pastiche of Sissinghurst Brookes decided to create five inter-connected garden rooms each of which showed an aspect of English garden design behind brick walls in the style of Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose classical style was enjoying a revival.

Planting Plan for the Chicago Botanic Garden (1988-09-05) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Like much of Brookes work, this is a garden of geometric forms. The construction and planting which formed this had to be able to withstand Chicago’s extremely cold winters. The footings for walls, steps, buildings and other structures where far more extensive than those in the milder climate Brookes had worked before.

For the planting, Brooke’s sourced English apple trees to create the ‘the bones of the garden’, and a high yew hedge. Some of plants he would have liked to use were not hardly enough for Chicago however he substituted them with others that would give a similar effect. He applied his learnings here to future projects in Poland and Russia.

Detail Plan for The Old Rectory Garden (1995-08) by John BrookesGarden Museum

The Old Rectory

Brookes was commissioned in 1994 to create a statement garden that was low maintenance for the 1.6 hectare site at The Old Rectory in Wiggonholt, West Sussex. The house was being rebuilt in the Arts and Craft tradition of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944). Brookes was inspired by Lutyen’s to create several hard landscaped terraces linked by broad angled steps with tiled risers.

Garden Plan for The Old Rectory (1995-08) by John Brookes and John BrookesGarden Museum

Brookes developed ‘the Grid’ method where he would use ‘a grid as a way of imposing discipline’. As part of this process he often uses an architectural feature on the building as a starting point for the shapes and proportions in his design. The garden becomes less formal with the shapes become smaller and sparser further away from the house, allowing it to blend with its surroundings.

At The Old Rectory he used the nine meter wide recess bay, seen here where door A is marked, to guide the proportions for the terraces and other features.

Planting Proposals for the Old Rectory Wiggonholt, Sussex (1996) by John BrookesGarden Museum

The upper terraces have gravel gardens planted with some of Brookes' favourite species such as Euphorbia Characias Subsp. Wulfenii which is a hardy plant that needs sun and well draining soil.

Brookes lived in Tehran, Iran, from 1977 to 1979 where he set up and worked as the director of the Inchbald school of Interior design. Subsequently he went to India and researched Mughal gardens. Both these experiences as well as his trips to Spain resulted in his 1987 book ‘The Gardens of Paradise’ which explores Islamic gardens.

The owners had also previously lived in Iran and relished in the sound of flowing water in gardens there. Knowing this Brookes created a water feature that extended for 16 meters on the terrace closest to the house. The feature had a square upper pool that flowed into a larger lower pool by a rill. In his 2002 book 'Garden Masterclass' Brookes writes that the water garden here was ‘inspired by Islamic examples and those I have seen in Moorish Spain’.

Planting Plan for English Garden in Japan (1989-12-14) by John BrookesGarden Museum

Barakura English Garden

In 1989 John Brookes was commissioned by the Yamada family to design a ‘romantic English garden’ in the foothills of a volcanic mountain range north-west of Tokyo. The clients wished to create a culture and art centre inspired by their love of the English way of life. On a first site visit the site was under snow and Brooks wondered ‘How was I to make an English garden in this?’

Planting Plan for English garden in Japan (1989-12-14) by John BrookesGarden Museum

His idea for the client was to create a traditional rose-covered pergola by the house and then divide the slope into a series of gardens planted in an English style. This was challenging as Brookes had to source plants normally unavailable in Japan and the Yamadas needed to find gardeners who understood how to maintain an English- style garden.

The garden was a success with Brookes saying ‘If the temperature and humidity of pure mountain air had not hinted at the exotic nature of the location, I could have been standing in a garden in Kent or Hampshire back here in the UK’. The garden is now owned by the families children, Kei and Eric, and remains open to the public. It is well known as, according to Brookes description, Miss Kei is ‘somewhat a celebrity in Japan’.

Protrait of John Brookes (2016-02) by Gwendolyn van PasschenGarden Museum

In March 2018 Brookes died at the age of 84. He is regarded as the ‘the man who made the modern garden’ and remembered for changing the approach to garden design in the UK and aboard through his designs, teaching and position as Chairman of the Society of Garden Designers.

Denmans Garden, his home for 38 years, remains open to the public and has been under renovation since 2017. You can find out more about the gardens at

Credits: Story

We would like to thank The John Brookes-Denmans Foundation for their expertise and support with creating this exhibition.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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